29 June 1950 was a particularly depressing day for British sport: The West Indies won a cricket test match for the first time when England was beaten, at Lords, by 326 runs. The last British tennis player went out of the singles at Wimbledon. In their first soccer World Cup, the inventors of the modern soccer game were beaten by a team from the land without soccer. This was seen as the greatest World Cup upset in the twenty-year history of the tournament.
Defeat by Spain two days later meant England was out of their first soccer World Cup. They had been, alongside Uruguay and Brazil, among the favorites to win. Brazil had sent their team manager and a group of Brazilian journalists by plane to London and train to Glasgow to weigh up what they thought would be their most formidable opponents, Scotland and England.
As it turned out, they need not have bothered. Both had been expected to take part as FIFA had agreed that the Home International Championship should be a qualifying group from which the first two would go through. Scotland finished second behind England and refused to go if they weren’t British Champions. Unfortunately, this was not the first of a series of problems for the FIFA World Cup tournament organizers.
Damage From The War
The last World Cup was held in 1938, and FIFA was anxious to revive one of the most important reasons for its existence. Brazil was chosen because it would have been the host in 1942. Much of Europe and Asia were still trying to recover from the effects of the war. There were several other refuseniks besides the Scots. Argentina was a significant loss.
They had not entered the 1949 Copa America as some of their best players for the World Cup had been tempted by Colombian money to play in a league not recognized by FIFA. There was also some anxiety that a weakened team would only lose prestige for football and the country.
Asia was to be represented by Burma and India, but both withdrew. Czechoslovakia was experiencing hard times and also decided not to go. France failed to qualify but received an invitation nevertheless, but after defeats by Belgium and Scotland decided that they were not competitive enough. Turkey and Portugal also pulled out, and of course, there was no Austria, Germany, or any country behind the Iron Curtain.
Only 13 Countries
So after a lot of correspondence and talk, only thirteen teams arrived in Rio de Janeiro to play for the Jules Rimet trophy. Given these circumstances, it would be churlish not to have some sympathy for the FIFA World Cup organizers. Yet the way the tournament was put together was rather curious.
The original idea was to have four groups of four in which each team would play each other with the group. Winners would go through to a final group of four from which the team with the most points – two for a win and one for a draw – would be the World Cup winner.
There was no World Cup final as such, as there would have been if the four group winners had just played two semi-finals. The fact that the two teams who were top of the group, Brazil and Uruguay, were scheduled to meet in the last match seems to have been a fortunate circumstance. It was, in effect, a final, and as all the world knows, Brazil, surprisingly, lost it. This was seen as the second World Cup upset of the 1950 tournament.
No World Cup Final?
A draw result would have seen Brazil world champions. But, as every schoolchild knows, there were other peculiar structural features. First, of course, four into thirteen doesn’t go, but three groups with three teams in each and four in one seems a more rational solution than the adopted one. So FIFA decided to go with two groups of four, one of three and one group of two.
Another reason for the French withdrawal was that they had been placed in a group with Uruguay and Bolivia, which involved them in one game in Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. The other World Cup match was two thousand miles in the north near Recife. Uruguay beat Bolivia 8-0 in its only group game.
Uruguay only played only four times in the whole tournament. There were only two rest days between the completion of the group games and the final round. This ensured that the Uruguayans were the freshest team in the final pool. Brazil had also had the advantage of playing five out of their six matches in Rio.
The 1950 World Cup was the first in which the teams traveled between match venues by plane. Air travel was still essentially the privilege of the rich. It was imbued with excitement and modernity that was unforgettable to those lucky enough to experience it. But it was often accompanied by exhaustion and tedium too. The English team took two days to get from London to Rio, 31 hours in the air, making stops at Paris, Lisbon, Dakar, and Recife. Was this their excuse for their World Cup upset?
The Italian team went by ship and took two weeks. No teams seem to have arrived even as much as a week in advance. On the other hand, Brazil and Uruguay did prepare seriously, abandoning league programs and establishing training camps with administrators, cooks, and specialist medical staff. England’s preparation was to play two matches in Lisbon and Brussels, both comfortably won.
The Maracana Stadium
In many respects, the star of the 1950 World Cup was the Maracana stadium, the most prominent and most elegant example of an urban sports stadium in the world at that time. Its two tiers were said to have a capacity of 160,000, and its curves and columns were made of some of the first concrete ever produced in Brazil. Construction had begun in 1948, and parts of it remained unfinished throughout the tournament. When the stadium was full, it was a spectacle in itself and prompted the FIFA Secretary to remark to president Jules Rimet, ‘We are going to be rich!’
On 25 June, England began their first FIFA World Cup with a straightforward but not particularly impressive two-goal victory over Chile in the Estadio Maracana. The Brazilians gave the attendance as 10,151 with receipts of 310,780 cruzeiros.
The City Of Belo Horizonte
Four days later, the England national team moved 300 miles north of Rio to Belo Horizonte to meet the very unfancied United States soccer team that had just lost 3-1 to Spain.
The town was higher, more relaxed, and less humid than Rio. The players stayed in the hills outside the city at a mining camp owned by a British company and would later remember the bus journey into town as the most frightening part of the trip. No one expected any result other than an English victory. A FIFA World Cup upset was not seen as possible prior to the match.
Indeed, the British press was confident. The opinion of the Daily Express was that the only way to avoid a one-sided match was to offer the Americans a three-goal start. The Daily Mirror thought England could reach double figures. The pitch was far from perfect. On the small side, clumps of coarse grass were recently laid and even some stones in places.
England’s Walter Winterbottom rejected the changing rooms as he thought they were unfit, so England changed at a local college, traveling the short distance to the Campo do America FC ground, known as the Estadio Independencia. Unfortunately, no one can remember where they had their halftime talk.
The US Soccer Team That Created The World Cup Upset
The US soccer team contained eight native-born players and one player from the UK, Eddie McIlvenny, who had played in the English League, and their coach was a Scot.
Greenock-born Eddie McIlvenny did indeed play in the English League, making eight appearances for Wrexham before being released and having an unsuccessful trial with Oldham Athletic. After that, he emigrated to the USA and played for Philadelphia Nationals. The coach, Edinburgh-born Bill Jeffrey, had moved to the USA at an early age.
The key men for the United States were John ‘Clarkie’ Souza, who pulled the strings in midfield; Charles ‘Gloves’ Colombo, a rugged center-half who often broke the rules; and goalkeeper Frank Borghi, who made many thrilling saves but was helped as England’s attack struck the woodwork four times.
World Cup Upset Footage
Most commentators agree that England had most of the play but failed to score from a plethora of good chances. Unfortunately, the few eyewitness accounts cannot be checked for accuracy by looking at a match film because there was no television back in Brazil in 1950.
There was a film crew at the game, but only about 20 seconds of coverage survived of the FIFA World Cup upset. This includes two long shots from the top of the stadium above the halfway line depicting the ball in play and several close-ups from behind one of the goals showing the respective goalkeepers, Borghi and Williams, catching crosses, a scramble for the ball on the edge of the penalty area with clear shots of Finney and Mortensen.
The Goal That Created The World Cup Upset
Unfortunately, the film crew did not capture the goal. As a result, it is unclear how the USA scored the only goal of the match. Some accounts describe it as a long shot through a crowd of players, probably deflected past the England goalkeeper. Others claimed it was a header by Gaetjens. Still, after exploring the primary sources, it seems likely that a shot at goal struck Gaetjens on the head and deflected wide of the England goalkeeper, an untidy goal to win what was a by all accounts scrappy match.
The memories of players who took part in this World Cup upset are unsurprisingly vague. Tom Finney thought he remembered the frame of the American goal being struck at least twice. England should have had a penalty and had a perfect goal disallowed.
England’s Defeat To Spain
Three days later, England failed to score again , lost 1-0 to Spain, and was knocked out of the 1950 World Cup. Immediately the team, management, and reporters returned home. None of them stayed to watch the crucial stages of the tournament. If the British wanted to read about the remainder of the fourth World Cup, they were reduced to finding the short, press agency reports that some British newspapers carried.
What soon became recognized as a list of the usual excuses was trotted out by press and players alike about their exit and World Cup upset.
The team was tired after a long season. The preparation was inadequate, and the hotel accommodation was not up to standard. The food was foreign, the heat oppressive, the pitches rough, and the refereeing even rougher.
Selection policies were unsophisticated for which management – meaning Arthur Drewery and Walter Winterbottom – were to blame. These were great players frustrated by circumstances over which they had no control.
But as Bob Ferrier would later point out, the incredible post-war England team that scored ten goals in Lisbon in 1947 and four in Turin in 1948 had been primarily undermined by natural wastage.
Several players, such as Swift, Carter, and Tommy Lawton, had retired from international soccer. Hardwick and Scott had suffered severe injuries. Franklin, a key figure at center-half, was tempted by the money offered by the renegade Colombia Football League, left for Bogota on the eve of England’s departure for the 1950 World Cup.
US soccer statistics state there are 4.2 million registered players. I’m sure every one of these players would love to be representing USA the next time we beat the English.
The Daily Worker Football Annual 1950-51 emphasizes what the World Cup loss meant. Our long-held advantage over the rest of the world in soccer was no more. “In our season and on our own pitches, we can still win, but not without a fight or two, as Italy proved at White Hart Lane in November 1949”. Other countries gather their players together for thorough preparations before international matches, and the players are keyed up to give their best.
But “British Clubs were more interested in their assets than in Britain’s international reputation.” Yet they spoilt their case by falling back on the old conservative mantras, that there was “still more natural talent in this country than anywhere else in the world.”
It would be easy to conclude that the first meeting between England and the United States had little impact on the soccer worlds of either country. In the USA, soccer remained a foreign sport played by a few college boys and groups of migrants. Moreover, it was an un-American activity hardly noticed in a sports market saturated by the big three of American football, baseball, and basketball.
Getting Rid Of Committees
But it was a different story in England where defeat was not without consequences. So Rous and Walter Winterbottom set up a technical subcommittee at the Football Association to explore what was required to improve English football for the subsequent world championships.
Leading players, managers, and chairmen of club boards and directors were all invited to various subject committees.
They seem to have accepted that there were no quick or simple solutions. The significant change they made was to allow the England manager to select the World Cup squad, not the current sub-committee of old men. This decision helped England add in-form players into the team, allowing the England manager to play the system and tactics.
Starting Teams In The 1950 World Cup Upset
ENGLAND: Bert Williams; Alf Ramsey, John Aston, Billy Wright, Laurie Hughes, Jimmy Dickinson, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, Roy Bentley, Stan Mortensen, Jimmy Mullen
USA: Ed Souza, Ed Mcllvenny, Walter Bahr, Joe Gaetjens, Harry Keough, Charlie Colombo, Frank Wallace, Job Maca, Gino Pariani, Frank Borghi, John Souza
All of the 1950 USMNT players were later inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and they will live on in soccer history for generations to come.
Rhett is an Australian-born, globe trotter who is a UEFA ‘A’ Licence Soccer Coach. With his family, he has traveled and coached soccer in more than 30 countries, while attending World Cups, European Championships, and some of the biggest local derbies in the world!